I worked on the biggest game show flop that Merv Griffin ever created. You have heard and will continue to hear about how he created Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, but I'd hazard a guess that not many people will be talking about Ruckus, described currently in his wikipedia entry thusly:
Arguably, Griffin's oddest game show was Ruckus (1991) with comedy-magician The Amazing Johnathan as host of a wild, slapstick affair that took stunts and questions-and-answers to a bizarre level. The show emanated from Griffin's Resorts Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City. However, WNBC in New York City was the only station that agreed to air the program. By the end of the show's 13 week run, plans were in the works to get the show syndicated nationally, but the project fell apart when the host walked away over a contractual dispute. Ruckus ended as a cult favorite, especially among children, teenagers and college students.
Like some other entries on wikipedia, there's a bit of wishful thinking in the above. No one really thought the show would be syndicated (in part because the ratings on WNBC were in the toilet), and it didn't end because of a contract dispute (although host and show did get a divorce, for reasons I won't go into).
It was my second full time job in Los Angeles, in the "biz". The first was for Dick Clark Productions, on another short lived game show. It was also the last TV job I ever did, primarily because it was the worst working experience of my life. It still registers as that today.
But that wasn't Merv's fault necessarily, and this post is about Merv and not the crushing depression I suffered while working for his company.
I first met Merv when he ambled down the hall from his office at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, which he then owned, to our production offices, which were also inside the hotel. It was an unannounced meet and greet, a chance for our fearless leader to address the troops. He was introduced to everyone in quick succession. And that was it. From then on, he knew your name. I half suspect that had I run into him a year ago and made some mention of having worked for him once, he'd immediately remember my name, the show and my hometown.
Merv was, frankly, larger than life. Sometimes with celebrities you are struck by how they seem less than their public image - shorter, less attractive, less commanding. But Merv was big - not just his waist size, although that too - and he strode around his hotel, his Atlantic City casino, glad handing the guests, the tourists, the workers. He was a showman. And he was in total control.
He was also in the midst of a palimony suit filed by a former assistant, a sexual harassment suit filed by Dance Fever host Denny Terrio, a public feud with Donald Trump, and had just sold his company to Columbia Pictures for 250 million. (Rolling Stone had a great piece on Merv last summer which covered much of this in detail.) None of this seemed to register with the folks getting off the bus from Philly. They just wanted a picture and wanted to know how Eva (of the Gabor sisters) was doing and was she in town (at the time, Merv and Eva were having a high profile relationship).
Now, being a young man fresh from the midwest, I wasn't quite sure how to act around this guy. Add to this the suspicion that his interest in me was not just professional (although who's to say, maybe he was just a flirt, although buy me a drink and I'll tell you the story about the cigarette) and the fact that the job itself was making me physically ill - and I, on more than one occasion, made a bit of a fool of myself around him. Nothing big, just the cringe-inducing joke that was funny to no one, except Merv would laugh his devilish laugh as if I'd just said something positively witty. Flirting or no, he put my younger, more uncomfortable self at ease. Sometimes, I'd feel more comfortable with Merv than most anyone else on the show.
But I was still more than a little unsure of just how much I was supposed to even talk to this guy. Which was my loss.
Years later, after Ruckus was long forgotten to everyone save me and a few others who survived it, I saw Merv on Tom Snyder's TV show. It was the first time I realized that he was a raconteur nonpareil. Why didn't I know to ask him to tell me his tales of Orson Welles?
One thing that the Rolling Stone piece included was this paragraph:
Not that Merv is against reality TV. He just hasn't seen an idea he likes. For instance, a show along the lines of The Osbournes -- except about Merv. He's pitched it, but the networks won't bite. They kiss up to him because of his track record with Jeopardy! and Wheel. But then they don't listen to him because he might skew to an older demographic. Drives him crazy. ''All they want to know is 'How did that skew?' '' says Merv. He catches himself sounding bitter. ''When they say you skew too old, you just say, 'Skew you.' '' He throws back his leonine head and roars with laughter.
It's funny, because Merv - the conservative Republican who was perhaps Nancy Reagan's best friend, the man who described himself as a "quatre-sexual" adding "I will do anything with anybody for a quarter", one of the last remnants of old Hollywood, the man with a thousand stories - was living a Bravo reality show for decades. Seriously, Merv and Eva and his hotels and his staff of good looking men? That's genius.
He was one of a kind, that Merv. And although I had to endure a job from hell, his small cameo appearance in my life has left me with some cracking stories. And I have to believe that the master storyteller wouldn't want it any other way.